South Africa's very own Reichstag fire

RW Johnson writes on the ANC's relentless programme of decay

2022 began with our very own Reichstag fire, signalling the end of our Weimar period. Weimar, after all, was known for attractive democracy and weak governance, with its ineffectual politicians losing all control of the economy. Overwhelmed by debt, inflation and unemployment, Weimar finally gave way to Hitler, an age of fear and iron. But once the Third Reich was over, no one wanted to go back to Weimar.

That, one suspects, is the key point of comparison. Should the 1994 republic fall would anyone want to resurrect it? Probably not. It stands condemned as a period which brought us Aids denialism, support for Mugabe’s torture and murder, the arms deal, runaway corruption, state capture and ever-mounting unemployment.

Our citizens are so disillusioned with what 1994 brought forth that increasingly they refuse to vote and say that they’d happily swap democracy for an authoritarian state which could at least get things done.

In that sense the fire which destroyed Parliament was a crowning moment. Everything that we know about it – the sprinkler system that didn’t work, the CCTV system which went unmonitored by the police, the fact that the post of head of security for Parliament had been vacant for six years, the fact that the building’s fire alarms only went off well after the fire brigade had arrived and begun its work – reeks of the key characteristics of the 1994 republic.

These are the no consequences management style; the failure to carry out routine maintenance or to respect routine fire precautions, the sheer sub-standard sloppiness of everyone in the public sector and the unwillingness of anyone to take personal responsibility.

We have seen all these things before, over and over again. Most recently we saw how the same sort of shameful neglect led to the terrible fires at UCT which destroyed – as did the Parliamentary fire – an important part of South Africa’s historical heritage.

More generally, we have seen one institution after another hollowed-out to the point of collapse: Eskom, SAA, the railways, the ministry of water affairs, the post office, the land bank, the civil service, the police, the judiciary, the universities – need one go on? In every case one sees a complete inability to manage and a refusal to appoint competent people to key jobs.

The result, as we know, is the failing state. But what does that leave? It leaves that area of life which is properly managed and where people are largely appointed on merit, which is to say the private sector. And the greater the ruin of the public sector, the more crucial the private sector becomes.

Which, after all, are the most important institutions in South African life? It’s a toss-up between the banks and the supermarkets. Not only are these organizations large employers and large profit-generators, but very few South Africans could manage without them.

Every day all races meet and mingle – safely and without friction – in Pick ‘n Pay, Spar and Shoprite/Checkers. Virtually every South African family depends on them for its food supply. Their goods are always of reasonable quality and have low profit margins.

Not quite as many individual South Africans use the banks but every single business that the public buys goods from – every garage, clothes shop, foodstore or furniture shop – relies completely on the banks.

Without them nothing would work. If Parliament is now out of commission for a few years few citizens will be inconvenienced, but if the supermarkets or banks (or even just their ATMs) closed down for even a week there would quite possibly be civil disorder.

Nor are these just special cases. Since the state has destroyed the national airline and the railways, South Africa now relies almost completely on road transport. How long would the country’s life last if the garages all shut down?

Or again, despite a fast-reducing number of farmers and a declining amount of land under cultivation a few thousand large and hyper-productive private farms produce more food than ever, supplying the whole domestic market and foreign exports too. How long could the country manage if these large farms stopped working?

This is important for several reasons. Given the way in which the state has laid waste to the public sector, the fact that the country can carry on at all is now almost entirely due to the private sector. No wonder that all citizens who can afford it seek relief from state failure by opting for private health, private security, private education, their own solar power and borehole water.

Secondly, the ANC, as if vexed by the private sector’s success, keeps hatching plans which have the aim of destroying, or at least damaging, the private sector. In the case of the all-important mining sector the state has succeeded so well that no new mines have been dug for over a decade. Many thousands of jobs have been lost and South Africa, with the largest mineral endowment on the planet, now attracts less than 2% of world mining investment.

The Expropriation without Compensation policy, which could have destroyed almost the whole of the private sector, has just narrowly failed, though it could still be exhumed.

The National Health Insurance plan would effectively destroy the private health industry, cause the emigration of most doctors and also shrink the tax base by around half. It remains ANC policy.

Thulas Nxesi, the Minister for Labour and (Un)employment is bringing in new legislation to make all private employers, under threat of ruinous penalties, make their workforces demographically representative.

In effect this would seek to compel businesses to employ many people who can’t do their jobs – as in the public sector. In addition Cde Nxesi (he is a Communist) is planning to bring in a great deal more labour market regulation, although all major international bodies say this is the opposite of what we need.

There are plans afoot to try to limit the size of farms. These plans would force the break-up of the very large farms on which South Africa currently relies for its food supply.

It is as if the ANC is searching for ways to complete the destruction of the economy. All these measures are proposed simply as matters of ideological principle without the least consideration for the terrible economic damage and job losses that they would result in.

The mere fact that such measures are being proposed makes it clear that the ANC is still playing at student union politics and hasn’t grasped that governing a country is a quite different matter.

Finally, look at what has happened with the airlines. As SAA and Mango collapsed several newish private airlines stepped in to fill the gap. They all deliver a better service than SAA/Mango did, often more cheaply and without any government subsidy. In the same way the private sector needs to step in to run the harbours and railways, provide alternative electricity, run the water industry and so on.

Yet the government, which has failed to run these industries, is blocking these necessary privatizations – partly for ideological reasons but also because efficient private businesses may not be willing to pay for way-overpriced goods and services from BEE suppliers. Moreover, as we now know, the SOEs have been funding the ANC – which the private sector might be less willing to do.

This situation cannot continue indefinitely. The whole country and the state now depends more heavily on the private sector than it ever has before. For the irony is that when, under apartheid, white monopoly capital allegedly ruled, there was a powerful and profitable state sector – Eskom, Iscor, the railways, and the docks and harbours. It has taken the arrival in power of the socialist ANC to destroy all that and make the triumph of the private sector inevitable.

R.W. Johnson

This article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.